Daniel Orenstein

A sacred silence

We're assaulted by horn-honking, leaf-blowing, motorcycle-revving, jack-hammer operating noise almost everywhere, every day of the week – except one
Quiet zones? We can do that! (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the unexpected pleasures of the COVID 19 pandemic lock-downs was the silence. Raw, beautiful silence across Israel’s urban areas, where 93% of the population resides. Airplanes were grounded. Cars gathered dust in their parking spots. Motorcycles and scooters, whose screeching normally reverberates across the cityscape, stood idle. Roaring, smoke-belching leaf-blowers and hedge-trimmers of neighborhood gardeners were likewise stored away (good riddance to them – may they never return). Construction work ceased.

Whether lying in my bed doom-scrolling, or sharing a cup of tea with my wife on the balcony, the normally excessive sounds of Haifa gave way to a sublime silence, broken only by calmer types of sound – the kids playing in an apartment nearby, an occasional dog bark, or, with reclaimed prominence in the soundscape, birds chirping, calling, and squawking. A Ministry of Environmental Protection (MoEP) press release informed us that there was a 52% reduction in ambient noise around the airport in March 2020, for example, as compared to that time a year earlier. The silence became one of the redeeming features of an otherwise anxious period.

But one night in the midst of the third (fourth? fifth?) lock-down, the quiet was interrupted by a low-pitched, persistent buzz several hundred feet above my neighborhood. The buzz actually woke me and it continued for hours. It repeated itself during the following nights. I posted a question about it to our neighborhood chat group and learned several neighbors had already complained to, in succession, the city, the police, and the army. They discovered that the buzz was associated to army training in the use of drones and, the army being the army, there was nothing we could do about it. The noise re-surfaced periodically for months, and it became increasingly agitating even when the normal sounds of the city returned.

The noise makers of the Technion campus (photo credit: the author)

Also during the pandemic era, my lab manager and I would meet in the morning on a nearly empty Technion University campus. The campus had been closed to students, and only essential staff were present. There was one coffee shop left open in the center of campus, and a small line of socially-distancing patrons would be waiting quietly for their morning brew. The campus was silent. With all the fear and uncertainty swirling around the city, country, and planet, this lovely, vegetated campus was an island of pastoral bliss.

I recalled that my students, when tasked with identifying the worst environmental nuisances on campus, would always note ‘noise’ high on their list: Trucks, building construction, air conditioners and chillers, and gardening equipment contributed to the most serious and disruptive environmental nuisance on campus. But on a pandemic morning on campus, it was silent. Until it wasn’t. In the midst of the morning silence – the leaf blowers started blowing. Despite the lack of people on campus, the garden maintenance team continued to blow the leaves into piles with the help of 90+ decibel (dB), gas-powered wind (any noise above 60 dB is considered harmful – more on this below). Sitting in the central campus did not just become unpleasant, it became unbearable.

Noise harms us

Most of us are annoyed by excessive noise. All of us are physically and psychologically harmed by excessive noise. Even a small amount of excessive noise (above 60 dB, which may be found in a noisy office environment or on a busy road) raises stress hormones and degrades concentration, while exposure to louder noises, particularly over long time periods, can lead to high blood pressure, aggressive behavior, sleep disturbance, loss of hearing, and heart attacks. According to MoEP data, 25% of the Israeli population suffers from excessive exposure to noise. Excessive noise constitutes a public health threat that requires the attention of public policy.

Noise levels of various common sources (credit: Hearing Health Foundation, 2022)

Fortunately, for policy sake, the science is fairly clear regarding the connection between noise and health, and the issue has been researched from a diversity of angles, including the impact of noise on academic performance of school children and the health risks associated to extensive exposure to loud noises. The Knesset research department prepared an extensive document identifying the nature of the problem, the relevant laws, the institutions responsible for monitoring and enforcement, and a review of how the problem is addressed in other countries.

Israel has a law that designates noise as a public nuisance and that provides a framework for regulating noise and prosecuting violators (Abatement of Nuisances Law, 1961). We have explicit regulations defining the legal limits for noise in different types of neighborhoods and over different periods of time (Abatement of Nuisances Regulations (Unreasonable Noise), 1990) and from what sources (a 1992 follow-up). 60 dB is defined by the Ministry of Environmental Protection as loud and potentially disturbing, while above 80 dB is considered harmful and, therefore, unacceptable.

The determination of excessive noise, however, is a bit cumbersome and the regulations are riddled with exceptions, ambiguous language, and questionable criteria. There is a persistent gap between policy, implementation, and enforcement, and so we all continue to be exposed to unhealthy amounts of noise during our day-to-day lives. Enforcement can be challenging because there is such a broad diversity of sources, from traffic, car alarms, wedding halls, heavy industry, construction, airplanes, etc., the impacts differ from person to person, and the damage is cumulative over long periods of time and potentially due to a wide variety of sources. At best, there is enforcement to deal with the most egregious noise violations and protecting us from construction work after 19:00, and after 22:00 from wedding halls and discotheques. Otherwise, we are left exposed to horn-honking, leaf-blowing, motorcycle-revving, jack-hammer operating noise almost everywhere, almost every day (but Saturday).

The problem persists, but there are a few bright spots

Before we resign to cynicism and assume that excessive noise will be yet another failing of the Israeli regulatory system, there are bright spots on the horizon.

One recent story of a cousin doing good resonates with me. I recently met this cousin at a family gathering. She had complained to me two years ago about a neighbor who had set up loudspeakers outside his suburban home in central Israel and, every late Friday afternoon, he would blast 15 minutes of music to the neighborhood to welcome in the Shabbat. Regardless of his intentions, the music, which she measured to be beyond the allowable noise limit, had been a terrible disturbance for her and her family.

“How is it going with your noisy neighbor?” I asked. She answered that for two years she had been complaining to everyone from the city hall to the MoEP, with everyone claiming they were powerless to enforce the law. But her story ended with a victory. The city, as it turned out, recently enacted a new city ordinance against bullying and violence, and the noise the neighbor was producing fell within the purview of that ordinance. In short, the noise was considered a violent incursion into the home and life of my cousin, and the city eventually put a stop to it.

Another [perennial] bright spot: Blue and White Knesset member Alon Tal (full disclosure: a friend and colleague), who has been at the forefront of the battle for environmental quality in Israel for decades, has raised the issue of excessive noise in Israel’s public green spaces, which harms both human visitors and wildlife. As Tal points out, citizens flock to forests and nature reserves to escape the noise of the cities, and often these sanctuaries are violated by blasting music and off-road vehicles. With the help of Bar Ilan University students and Machon “Omek” for Policy Design and Legislation, Tal is working on updating noise regulations to address these neglected sources of noise. Quiet beaches established around the Sea of Galilee may provide a precedent for a more relaxing future in Israel’s open spaces.

And finally, there is always Shabbat. If there is some common ground between secular environmentalists and religious citizens, it is around the day of rest. This blog post was written on a Shabbat morning. The ambient noise level was 30 db, which jumped up to 40 db with the keystrokes of the computer (and if a bird chirped outside or a car drove by). This level of quiet is good for our physical and psychological health. And that is reason enough for this secular Jew to revel in the idea of Shabbat and enjoy the silence it brings.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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